It's a classic Catch-22: A theater wants to stage a musical that demands cultural authenticity, but can't find the cast to do it. If it doesn't do the show, however, it's missing an opportunity to cultivate the talent pool.
After facing this quandary in past seasons, Ordway Center took a new approach for its production of "West Side Story," the classic musical about warring white and Puerto Rican gangs that opens this week. It teamed up with community partners such as Teatro del Pueblo — on St. Paul's own Hispanic West Side — offering free workshops to help performers develop their chops in musical theater.
"There are not a whole lot of Latino musical theater artists in town, but if you don't do a show like this, then Latino performers don't get a chance to build their skills," said Ordway artistic director James Rocco.
The need for talent development is clear. More Twin Cities companies are doing musicals — including Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, the Guthrie, Theater Latté Da, Children's Theatre and even the Old Log — while tapping a limited pool of performers.
"The whole reason we're doing any of it is to share this great American art form of musical theater with our community," said Rocco. "I want 'West Side Story' to be a magnet for people who want to make great art, for them to see that we embrace our great community and be drawn to that."
Aiming for 'Heights'
There's a wealth of musical theater talent among African-Americans in the Twin Cities, and, to a lesser degree, Asian-Americans. But Latinos? Not so much.
"There are people like Maria Isa and Ricardo Vazquez, who are both Puerto Rican, but there aren't a whole lot of them and there haven't been many opportunities for them to hone their craft," said Al Justiniano, founder and artistic director of Teatro del Pueblo. "In partnering with the Ordway, we hope to develop a strong pool of talent not just for this show and upcoming shows, but for the larger field."
Rocco is looking toward September, when the Ordway will stage "In the Heights," the breakout musical by "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda that's set in a Dominican neighborhood in New York City. The company hopes to have even more homegrown Latino performers in that show.
The two companies have held workshops for singing, acting, dancing and other fundamental skills.
"We do things like how to present, how to prepare pieces for audition," said Justiniano. "Some of the stuff is basic, but that's what you do to build the infrastructure and talent pool so that companies don't have any excuse about hiring Latino artists."
One graduate is Twin Cities-based dancer Giselle Mejia, whose father is Afro-Ecuadorean. She has achieved some success in her field. In 2009 she and her brother, frequent hoofing partner Dario Mejia, formed Curio Dance, which regularly performs at the Cowles Center in Minneapolis. The brother-sister combo gained modest TV fame when they finished third in 2011 on "America's Got Talent," a showing that led to a stint performing in a technology and dance show in New York.
But their larger goal of kicking up their heels in a Broadway-style production had eluded them until now. Both Mejias are part of the cast of "West Side Story," headlined by local star Tyler Michaels and New York-based actor Evy Ortiz, who also played the role of Maria in a Broadway tour of the show.
Giselle Mejia took workshops in choreography from the show's director, Bob Richards, who once worked with Jerome Robbins, the Broadway legend who conceived, co-directed and choreographed the original staging of "West Side Story" in 1957. She then taught the dances to other company members.
The training has not only expanded her tool kit, but enhanced her confidence as well, she said.
"When I was a child, my mom had us in ballet and some Children's Theatre stuff," she said. "But for the most part, this kind of work on a musical is new to us. It's different to do the singing and acting in a musical theater community."
'That it's free is incredible'
Ashley Selmer, who founded the hip-hop dance company Shapeshift, said the workshops helped her become a more well-rounded performer.
"The opportunity to learn more about acting or jazz dance in a workshop that's free — that's just incredible," said Selmer, who is part of the group that sings "I Feel Pretty."
The Ordway-Teatro partnership was facilitated by Shelley Springob Quiala, who interned with Teatro while studying at the University of Minnesota. She was hired by the Ordway 14 years ago in its education department, and is now vice president of arts education and community engagement.
"We are interested in telling stories authentically, so it made sense to reach out to Al and Teatro," she said. "What does it mean to have a show like this on our stage and have it reflect more of the breadth of our community?"
Added Justiniano: "It's a win-win because it's also about showing how a culturally specific organization can work in an equitable, respectable way with a mainstream, white-led organization," he said.